The Only 4 Exercises You Will Ever Need, PERIOD
Physical activity is an important aspect of healthy living for people of all ages and goals (10). There are literally thousands, if not infinite ways to move the human body, and all of these could be considered an exercise. If you were to quantify, perform, and then progress literally ANY of these movements, this would be called training. But with so many exercises variations, and exercise programs to follow, where do you begin?
The dilemma of the novice trainee: too many exercises, not enough time. Most people don’t have 2 hours per day, 5 days per week to invest in going to the gym. Fortunately, you do not need to train anywhere near this much to significantly improve health, build muscle, and increase strength. You can get by with lifting weights as few as two times per week and still incur significant benefit (11).
Compound vs Isolation Exercises
Studies show that you can develop similar levels of muscle and strength from single-joint vs multi-joint exercises (1). A single-joint, or isolation exercise, is an exercise where only one joint is moving (such as a triceps extension). A multi-joint, or compound exercise, involves movement at two or more joints (such as a push-up, which uses both the elbow and shoulder joints).
Compound exercises work more muscles at once than isolation exercises. A lat pulldown, for example, works muscles around both the shoulder and elbow joint. This simultaneously utilizes more muscle fibers than say, a curl, which only works the fibers involved in flexing and extending the elbow. There are studies that show adding single-joint exercises onto a program that already has compound exercises for the same muscles does not result in a significant amount of additional muscle growth. Simply doing the compounds on their own produces similar results (2).
Therefore, it makes sense to prioritize multi-joint compound exercises in your workouts. In fact, if you have limited time, it may even make sense to ONLY train multi-joint exercises. They give you more bang for your buck. Instead of needing to do an exercise for your quads, an exercise for your glutes, an exercise for your core, and one for your hamstrings, you can simply do one exercise - a squat - and incur the majority of the benefits you would get from doing all of those other movements. Don’t believe me? Let’s delve deeper.
When we break it down to the base level, are only 4 main patterns of human movement. Every single exercise or movement falls into one of these 4 categories. They are: push, pull, squat, and hinge. A barbell row? That’s a pull exercise. A bench press? A push. A deadlift? Hinge. A barbell squat? Well, you got me there... it’s a squat pattern.
By doing just these 4 movement patterns, or variations thereof, you will hit every major muscle group in your body. Focusing on these instead of isolation exercises, will maximize your efficiency in the gym, while also seriously simplifying things. Let’s look at each type of exercise, and exactly which muscles it trains.
Exercise 1: Pushing Exercises. Exercises such as push-ups, overhead presses and bench presses are push movements. Push movements work the back of your arm (triceps brachii), shoulders (anterior deltoid), Neck (upper trapezius) chest (pectoralis), and even the front of your arms (biceps brachii) (3,4).
Generally, exercises that are more vertical (such as an overhead press) emphasize the neck and shoulders, while horizontal pushes (such as the bench press) work the chest and triceps more. Push exercises also utilize the trunk stabilizing muscles, rear shoulders, upper back, and even lower body muscles, such as quads and glutes, to stabilize (5). Suffice it to say, pressing exercises are an invaluable part of any workout training program.
Exercise 2: Pulling Exercises. Compound pulling exercises include things like rows, pull-ups, and pulldowns. The primary muscles used in these types of exercises are the upper back (latissimus dorsi), rotator cuff (infraspinatus), biceps (bicep brachii) and neck (trapezius). Other muscles involved include the lower back (erector spinae), spine stabilizers (multifidus), core (obliques & rectus abdominis) and even the triceps (6, 7).
Between pushing and pulling exercises, you will work literally every single major muscle in the upper body, and even activate some of the muscles in the lower body. How cool would it be to build a strong, toned upper body with just two different exercises? Well look, we just outlined exactly that. Read on until the end of the article and I will provide some sample exercise programming options.
Exercise 3: Squatting Exercises. This one is probably the most self evident in its naming, because, well. It's a squat. These include movements such as a barbell squat, leg press, and lunge. Squat movements primarily use the quads (rectus femoris, vastus lateralis,vastus intermedius, and vastus medialis), the glutes (gluteus) and the hamstrings (biceps femoris and semitendinosus). However, squats also activate muscles in the core, back, and even the calves (gastrocnemius) (8).
Squat exercises, especially those where you are standing, are amazingly versatile. Many see this type of movement as only a lower body exercise, but this is not the case. In my experience, one of the greatest benefits of doing squats is the amount that they can strengthen and build your core. In fact, a 2018 study actually found similar abdominal muscle activation in heavy squats and heavy planks (12). Planks are a great core exercise, so getting so much core work out of squats means you probably need to put less total training time into building your abs (READ: there is no ab work necessary here).
Exercise 4: Hinging Exercises. Hinge exercises are movements like deadlifts, hip thrusts, and back & hip extensions. If you ask me, these are likely the most underrated type of exercise. Hinge exercises primarily target the glutes (gluteus maximus, medius, and minimus), the hamstrings (biceps femoris and semitendinosus), and the back (erector spinae, latissimus dorsi, etc). However, hinge exercises, specifically deadlift variations, also work a host of other muscles, including the forearms, quads, core, spinal stabilizers, obliques, calves, and neck (9). Deadlifts are quite possibly the most complete exercise of the lot. If there is one type of exercise that should be indispensable to your program, it should be a deadlift.
You may have noticed by now that between all of these exercises, we have hit every single major muscle in the body. Did you notice which muscles group has the most overlap between all movements? That would be the core muscles. Every single type of major movement pattern - push, pull, squat, and hinge - all of them work the core. Therefore, it is wholly unnecessary to add additional ab work to your program. In fact, anecdotally, I have seen superior ab muscle growth in both myself and clients by simply focusing on these four exercises and removing direct ab work entirely. It keeps you focused, and takes out yet another thing that probably adds more distraction than results. Abs are made in the kitchen anyway.
How To Design Your Workout
You can make a complete and effective full body workout program utilizing at least one of each of these movement types. But you don't need to do all of them on the same day. As long as you do each movement pattern at least once weekly, you will have your bases covered. It is also important that you use progressive overload in your training. Progressive overload is the process of adding more sets, reps, and / or weight to your program over time. Keeping exercise selection simpler makes the process of progressive overload easier.
Let’s talk about exercise variation. If you want to make the absolute most progress possible in muscle growth, a little more variation is better. However, we must also consider the delicate balance of variation, progression, and time. The more variation you include in your workout program, the harder it will be to make progress on each individual exercise, and the more time your workouts will take. Less variation lends itself to faster progress in the selected exercises, but you may be leaving something on the table when it comes to muscle growth potential.
I would therefore recommend varying the exercise selection to an intelligent degree. The most important things you can do to add exercise variation, while still keeping the program simple, are as follows:
1.) Include at least 1 vertical pushing movement, such as the barbell overhead press or the pike push-up, AND 1 horizontal pushing movement, such as the barbell bench press or standard push-up, in your training program.
2.) Include both vertical (lat pull-down, chin-up, etc.) and horizontal (barbell row, machine row, etc.) pulling movements.
3.) Include a unilateral squat exercise, such as a lunge, to maximize lower body development. Unilateral exercises are unnecessary for the other movements.
4.) Include both thrusting (such as a glute bridge, barbell hip thrust, etc.) and deadlift type (barbell deadlift, single leg touchdown, etc.) hinge movements.
Any additional variation beyond these points make the program too complicated for a beginner, and wastes valuable training time and resources.
If we were to make the priority of the program muscle building, with strength as the secondary goal, it makes sense to have a bit more exercise variation. We also will want to work in multiple rep ranges, as this has been shown to increase muscle growth compared to only working in one rep range (13).
Example 1 (4-Days Per Week Muscle & Strength Building Program):
Overhead Press: 5 sets of 5
Squat: 4 sets of 10
Deadlift: 4 Sets of 5
Assisted / Weighted Chin-up: 5 Sets 8
Bench Press: 5 Sets of 5
Lunge: 4 Sets of 5 per leg
Barbell Row: 5 Sets of 5
Hip Thrust: 4 Sets of 10
Example 2 (3-Days Per Week Muscle & Strength Building Program):
Squat: 4 Sets of 5
Bench: 3 Sets of 5
Deadlift: 3 Sets of 5
Overhead Press: 4 Sets of 10
Lunge: 3 Sets of 10 per leg
Assisted / Weighted Chin-up: 3 Sets of 10
Barbell Row: 3 Sets of 8
Front Squat: 3 Sets of 8
Hip Thrust: 3 Sets of 8
If we were to put strength as the priority, it makes more sense to limit exercise selection. More repetition in core lifts will build technical proficiency in them quicker, and using fewer rep ranges will create adaptations specific to maximizing strength in those ranges. A strength based program under this paradigm would look like this:
Example 3: (4-Days Per Week Strength & Muscle Building Program):
Bench Press: 4 Sets of 5
Deadlift: 3 Sets of 5
Barbell Row: 4 Sets of 5
Squat: 3 Sets of 5
Bench Press: 3 Sets of 4
Deadlift: 4 Sets of 4
Barbell Row: 3 Sets of 4
Squat: 4 Sets of 4
Example 4 (3-Days Per Week Strength & Muscle Building Program):
Squat: 3 Sets of 4
Bench: 3 Sets of 4
Deadlift: 2 Sets of 4
Squat: 2 Sets of 6
Bench: 2 Sets of 6
Assisted / Weighted Chin-up: 4 Sets of 6
Squat: 3 Sets of 5
Bench: 4 Sets of 5
Deadlift: 1 Set of 5
You can break it up in many different ways and it can still work. Your best bet is to use just enough but not too much exercise variation, hit each movement pattern at least once per week, and don’t over-complicate it.
Exercise Variations With Minimal Equipment
If you want to train like this at home, you are in luck! Below are some exercise choices for each movement type that require minimal or no equipment. If you were to train like this, I would recommend increasing reps by 1.5-3x on most exercises, simply because you will not have access to as many weight options for loading. Instead of adding weight each week, focus on adding 1-2 additional reps on each set.
Push: Wall Push-Up, Kneeling Push-up, Push-up, Pike Push-up, Backpack Overhead Press, Backpack Push-up, Handstand Push-up.
Pull: Chin-up, Doorway Row, Table Row, Body Row, Reverse Elbow Push-up, Backpack Row, Backpack Upright Row.
Squat: Squat To Chair, Bodyweight Squat, Jump Squat, Bodyweight Lunge, Elevated Step-up, Backpack Squat, Tempo Squat.
Hinge: Single Leg Touchdown, Golfer Deadlift, Glute Bridge, Backpack Deadlift, Single Leg Elevated Glute Bridge, Chair Single Leg Hip Thrust.
If you have any questions, or want programming recommendations, feel free to email me at Jonnyreps@gmail.com. Go fourth, and simplify your training!